Three scientists have shared this year’s Nobel prize in physiology or medicine for discovering how cells respond to varying oxygen levels in the body, one of the most essential adaptive processes for life, reports The Guardian.
William Kaelin Jr at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts; Sir Peter Ratcliffe at Oxford University and the Francis Crick Institute in London; and Gregg Semenza at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland won for “how cells sense and adapt to oxygen availability,” the Nobel committee said.
Beyond describing a fundamental physiological process that helps animals to thrive in some of the highest regions on Earth, the mechanism has given researchers new insights into treatments for anaemia, cancer and other diseases.
In work that spanned more than two decades, the researchers teased apart different aspects of how cells in the body sense and then respond to low oxygen, a gas that is crucial for converting food into useful energy.
When the amount of oxygen available to cells drops, levels of a protein complex named HIF rise. This ramps up the activity of a gene used in the production of erythropoietin (EPO), a hormone that in turn boosts the production of oxygen-carrying red blood cells.
Randall Johnson, professor of molecular physiology and pathology at Cambridge University, said this year’s Nobel laureates “have greatly expanded our knowledge of how physiological response makes life possible.”
A drug that boosts the body’s production of red blood cells by tapping into the molecular machinery identified by the winners has already been approved in China and is under consideration by regulators in Europe.
The role of HIF is crucial from the earliest days of life, Randall said. “If an embryo doesn’t have the HIF gene it won’t survive past very early embryogenesis. Even in the womb our bodies need this gene to do everything they do.”
The three laureates will share the 9m Swedish kronor (£740,000) equally, according to the announcement from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm.